EDITORIAL 

DON'T HIDE OUR PAST

Frankly, we have thought that the ongoing fuss over the existing names of certain downtown parks has been misguided. No change of name is going to eradicate the fact that, once upon a time, there was a Confederate States of America, nor that Memphis and Tennessee belonged to that short-lived and ill-fated experiment in nationhood.

The founders of the Confederacy were not “traitors” (as one normally reasonable local official has declared), any more than were the Founding Fathers in their earlier declaration of independence from Great Britain. They made no allegiances to a foreign power. Their sin — a grievous one, and grievously answered — was commitment to the ignoble institution of slavery. This fact stains the honor and the memory of Jefferson Davis and General Nathan Bedford Forrest and the 13-state Confederacy as a whole. But it would be petty, as well as historically inaccurate, to ignore the extraordinary tenacity and heroism evinced by the aforementioned in that tragic event known as the American Civil War.

The bottom line is that Davis and Forrest and the Confederacy are all, indelibly, part of our history. To ignore that fact and to rename three downtown parks, as some propose, in order to conceal it is pointless. It is the kind of historical revisionism practiced by the late, unlamented Soviet Union, characterized by officially sanctioned photo-cropping and “purges” of historical figures who did not fit the party narrative. As state senator Steve Cohen wisely observed in his dissent from other Center City Commission members’ decision to pass the name-change proposition on to the City Council: “That’s history. … Nobody can debate that Nathan Bedford Forrest was a Memphian.” And he noted that Ramesses the Great, prominently commemorated in a statue in front of The Pyramid, had been a tyrant who enslaved Cohen’s Jewish ancestors in ancient Egypt.

Putting all this in even greater perspective was a subsequent suggestion made — with evident seriousness — by local businessman Karl Schledwitz, who proposed uprooting Forrest and his wife, along with the well-known statue of the general mounted on his steed, and moving them to Elmwood Cemetery. Aside from the ghoulishness of this — just imagine the clanking machinery showing up on NBC Nightly News as the disinterral got under way — it is hard to imagine an action that would be more inflammatory to the sensibilities of those Memphians who would oppose such a dramatic alteration in the city’s landscape. And make no mistake: This would be an ugly fight and would bring the worst possible kind of attention to Memphis. Just this week, at its national convention in Nashville, the Sons of Confederate Veterans pledged $10,000 to wage a legal battle against the removal of Confederate monuments in Memphis. Is this really the kind of publicity that will lure an International Paper headquarters to our city? Do we really want this kind of nasty squabble to define Memphis’ image on the national news? Surely, our civic leaders have more important things to attend to.

And more constructive solutions to the current controversy are at hand. It has been suggested by some that memorials and statuaries be added to the downtown parks that would pay homage to the African-American side of our history and to its many worthy exemplars. We already pay tribute here and there to the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Perhaps more is required, especially given the fact that Dr. King made his ultimate sacrifice here. And Memphis history has been graced by numerous other black heroes who could be honored by appropriate memorials.

What we need is more, and more diverse, recognition of our history — not less. We can’t progress into the future by trying to cover up the tracks of where we’ve been.

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